Monthly Archives: February 2014

How Well Do We Understand the Language of the Bible?

One task that requires a combination of approaches is understanding the language that the biblical writers used.  The texts in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament were produced over a period of 500-1000 years.  During a time period that long a language can emerge and die, or it can gradually change so that it becomes difficult to recognize as the same language at the beginning and end of the period.  So, the sacred texts of ancient Israel use many different stages of the Hebrew language, and portions of the books of Ezra and Daniel use two different stages of the Aramaic language.  There is evidence that biblical writers and editors sometimes updated the language of the written sources they used to compose their books.  It is also possible, but difficult to prove, that some biblical writers wrote in deliberately archaic forms of the language for literary effects.  So, in order to understand the language of a biblical text, we need to use our best understanding of where that text fits into the historical development of the language and what the writer of the final form was trying to do.

One problem that I confront each year in my teaching of Biblical Hebrew is a section of the book of Ruth which contains, by my count, eight pronouns that are the wrong gender.  Unlike English, Biblical Hebrew has different pronouns for “them” and the plural “you” based on the gender of the group to whom the text is referring.  Here is a list of the problematic phrases:

1:8  May the LORD deal with you (2 m. pl.) kindly…

1:8  As you (2 m. pl.) have dealt

1:9  May the LORD give to you (2 m. pl.)

1:11 …if they could be husbands for you (2 m. pl.)

1:13 Would you wait for them (3 f. pl.)

1:13  For them (3 f. pl.)  would you keep yourself…

1:19 And the two of them (3 m. pl.) went on….

1:22 And they (3 m. pl.) arrived in Bethlehem…

Before and after this sequence, the book of Ruth uses pronouns correctly, according to our understanding of them, and there are many pronouns within this sequence that are correct. What could explain this phenomenon?  It is possible that the Hebrew language passed through a stage in which pronouns worked differently than in others, but why would that only affect a small portion of Ruth?  I am not aware of any other place in the Hebrew Bible that contains such a sudden burst of seemingly incorrect pronouns.  Elsewhere they occur in isolated cases.  The first six of these eight “misuses” appear in the speech of Naomi, so a literary argument might propose that the writer wishes to portray Naomi as a poor speaker of Hebrew, or as too emotionally distraught to get her grammar right.  The last two examples, however, are in the narration of the book, so this line of argument cannot be conclusive either.  Socio-linguistics might tell us that what we define as “gender” in language can have additional functions.  In the Amharic language of central Ethiopia, for example, two male speakers may talk to each other using grammatically feminine forms as a signal of a long, close friendship.

I do not know of a satisfying answer to this question, but it is a good reminder that our translation of biblical texts and, thus, our understanding of them must always be provisional.  Challenging problems like this require all the tools of understanding at our disposal, requiring experts in history, literature, and linguistics to listen to each other and make use of each other’s work.


Why We Can’t Identify “the” Servant in Isaiah

Historical-critical study of the Bible during the twentieth century made significant progress in understanding what the book of Isaiah is and how it developed.  There is general agreement that an early layer of material from the eighth century, associated with the Judean prophet for whom the book is named, was revised and expanded over about three centuries to address an audience in the Persian province of Yehud that was struggling through a period of political and religious conflict.  There is a lot of room in such a framework for disagreement about the meaning of individual texts at various stages, from their own individual origins through the multiple versions of the book that may have circulated at various times.

The four poems in 42:1-4, 49:1-6, 50:4-9, and 52:13-53:12, commonly called the “Servant Poems” or “Servant Songs,” have provided one of the most difficult challenges for modern biblical scholarship.  The significant use of these poems by New Testament writers to talk about Jesus created the first hurdle for understanding them in the context of Israelite history and the book of Isaiah.  The pre-critical assumption that Isaiah, son of Amoz, a prophet living in Jerusalem in the late eighth century, wrote the entire book in its current form was a separate problem, but one that often became entangled with Christian insistence that the book of Isaiah was making specific predictions about Jesus, rather than addressing issues and events of its own day.  During the twentieth century, biblical scholarship managed to free the book of Isaiah from these rigid assumptions and produce a reliable general description of the book’s development over three centuries.  The portion of the book containing the Servant Songs addresses the period at the end of the Babylonian Exile and beginning of the Judean Restoration.  The primary concern of Isaiah 40-55 still seems to be looking back on the experience of the past several decades and understanding  the suffering that characterized it, even as possibilities were opening for new beginnings.  So, how might the Servant Songs participate in that task?

Historical-critical approaches make that last question possible, but may not be well equipped to answer it.  Scholarship on Isaiah 40-55 during the middle of the 20th century often became preoccupied with the task of finding a single historical identity for the servant, one which may not exist at all, but understanding what the book of Isaiah is doing as a literary work may provide a more productive path.  Because it wants to present the entire 300 year scope of the book within the “vision of Isaiah, son of Amoz” framework, the introduction of a new, historically identifiable figure in the sixth century is not possible.  Instead, the servant is an ambiguous character who is a literary extension of the Isaiah character, a representative of all of Israel (49:3), and an ideal model for the plural “servants” who emerge beginning at 54:17.  A proposal like this for the identity of the servant that is primarily literary in its formulation and grounded in the final form of the whole book may take us back, better equipped, to important questions concerning composition, such as did the Servant Songs as a collection exist prior to their incorporation into the larger 40-55 collection, and did 40-55 circulate independently before it became attached to earlier Isaiah materials?

Happy (Belated) International Septuagint Day

Yesterday was International Septuagint Day.  The International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies chose February 8 for this recognition because in 533 C.E. Emporer Justinian issued a ruling allowing synagogues in the Roman Empire to read their scriptures in any language they chose, including Greek.  Confusion abounds about the “Septuagint” and the meaning of its existence, but increased attention to this textual tradition points toward some ways that the study of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is converging on some important issues.

First, some background is in order.  The name “Septuagint” derives from a legend about seventy or seventy-two Jewish scholars in ancient Alexandria translating the Torah into Greek.  The story was great public relations for the idea of translating the Hebrew Scriptures (Tanak) into Greek, because by the end of first century of the Common Era, the full canon seems to have been translated and in wide use.  It was a boon to the early Christian church, which had adopted these texts and was rapidly becoming a Gentile, Greek-speaking group.  Nevertheless, naming the entire process of translating Jewish Scriptures into Greek “the Septuagint” generates some difficulties.  We have evidence of three different Greek translations of the Tanak within Judaism (Symmachus, Theodotian, and Aquila), but the evidence of exists only in second and third hand fragments and quotations of Origen’s Hexapla, a third century six-column Bible that included all three.  The most direct and thorough evidence of the Greek tradition lies in three nearly complete Greek Christian Bibles from the fifth and sixth centuries.  These include not only the books of the Christian New Testament, but also various books from Second Temple Judaism not included in the Tanak, such as those commonly labeled “Apocrypha,” some of which were originally written in Greek.  There are no known manuscripts of the Greek tradition that come from Judaism.  So, what do we mean when we say “Septuagint?”  Its common usage refers to the entire practice of producing ancient Jewish writings in Greek, which makes the term almost useless in current scholarship attempting to deal with texts in a precise manner.  There are those of us who would like to restrict the term to mean the Greek Christian Bibles of the early Middle Ages, while using “Old Greek” to refer to earlier texts, particularly the Jewish ones, but this feels like swimming against the tide.  Using a term in a way different from the way most people understand it is rarely successful.  Still, that this has become a significant issue is a positive sign for biblical studies.  If you are interested in the development of the Greek Bible, the excellent recent book by Timothy Michael Law (When God Spoke Greek:  The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible) provides a great resource.

The importance of recent attention to the “Septuagint” lies in what it reveals about the history of the Bible (another word that has no precise meaning).  The production of the Bible in its many forms is a process that had no beginning and has no end.  There is no original and there is no final form.  The activities that generate and sustain the tradition include reciting, singing, writing, editing, copying, translating, interpreting, and more.  The many activities have always been overlapping.  Perhaps the simplest example of this is that the book of Genesis had been translated into Greek (and maybe even Aramaic too) before the book of Daniel was even written.  We are always interpreting a process as much as we are a text, and so we need a complex web of methods to interpret a complex tradition.